There was once a thriving Jewish population in the country of Georgia. Now, just 3,200 Jewish believers remain. Photographer Tariq Zaidi went in search of those who stayed and found a proud and protective community lost in time.
There have been Jews in Georgia for 26 centuries. The first are said to have settled in Western Georgia during the Babylonian times following the invasion of Israel. Further waves of people entered fleeing persecution by the Byzantine Empire. Locals claim that at one point there was a vibrant community of 250,000 Jews living in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi alone.
But after the reestablishment of the state of Israel and the opening of the borders of the USSR in the late 1980s, there was mass Aliyah (relocation from the diaspora back to Israel). Many families moved to Eastern Europe and the the United States in search of work. Several hundred Jewish Georgian families now live in the New York tristate area alone. But this mass exodus means that over the last 30 years, most Jewish settlements in Georgia have gradually been abandoned, or have shrunk to ghostly fragments of their former selves.
There are now just a few cities in Georgia with a Jewish population. In Kutaisi, Georgia's third-largest city and once a strong Jewish settlement, only 220 people of Jewish heritage remain.
"I'm often drawn to small communities who are fighting to survive in some way," said Zaidi, a self-taught photographer who left a high-level corporate job in 2014 to take photos full-time. "So when I found out that there were so few Jews left in Georgia, I wanted to see if I could document their way of life."
Perhaps one reason why they've stayed is that the Georgian Jews live in a state of relative harmony with their Christian neighbors. "Everyone I spoke to said that they had never experienced any anti-Semitism here," said the British-born Zaidi. "But they are fighting against a changing world. Many pillars of the Jewish community, such as the Kosher bakeries and restaurants, have closed down or are now deserted. Most places still have at least one synagogue, although many are dilapidated and without a dedicated rabbi or much of a congregation."
Georgia is a country known for its disproportionately large and healthy elderly population, but the region's limited financial resources mean that many aging Georgians also live in relative poverty.
"Nearly all of the Jews I met are deeply observant. They are determined to stay connected to their roots and traditions. It's all they have left now that their families have moved away."
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